Too many people go to a gym for the first time and start on machines based workouts. As a matter of fact, most gyms have beginner programs designed around a machine circuit. This is probably the worst thing to do as far as your body is concerned. Why do health clubs do this?
Basically, because its easy to show you how to perform the exercises (even though most of the time you are just reading a very vague instruction on the machine with a simple diagram). It makes you feel like you are doing something productive and are on the right track. But most of all, it’s cheap and helps with member retention.
When you follow a machine based program, you miss some very important body parts. You see, machines are made to isolate certain muscles. They do that by moving you in a fixed range preventing other muscles from helping out. You may be thinking, “isn’t that the point?” well, yes and no.
Free weight movements (with barbells and dumbbells) may look more advanced because they are more technical and require more coordination. However, this is what you are trying to develop. This lack of coordination in the gym is due to under developed stabilizing muscles. Muscles that those machines don’t target.
Stabilizing muscles are smaller muscles that work in conjunction with larger muscles. They are generally around the joints or areas that twist and rotate. As very little movements in your life move in a fixed range, these stabilizing muscles become essential to your workout. If you lift a box off the ground, carry groceries, or climb stairs, you have many stabilizing muscles working to keep you balanced and protect the joints.
When you train with free weights, you are moving in an unstable environment, just like in real life. So you are targeting the stabilizers as well as the main muscle groups. This develops the body as a whole, building real world strength as well as working more muscles to help elevate your metabolic rate.
I have taken people who have been working out on machines for years and thought they were quite strong only to prove them wrong. For example, I had a woman in her early 20’s who would use the seated chest press machine, she was able to do many reps with 105lbs. When I explained about how she wasn’t working her stabilizers and put her on a flat bench with 15lb dumbbells in each hand, she couldn’t push them straight up without my hands guiding her. She was shocked to see how hard it was to do the same move with only 30lbs!
As you can see, your prime mover or larger muscle might get stronger but the supporting muscles don’t. This will often lead to injuries in the real world when you go to lift something. You feel strong enough to move it and your prime movers may be, but your stabilizers aren’t and they give way, leading to injury.
So don’t be intimidated by free weights. They should be your main tool in the gym. You want to make sure you strengthen those joints before you work on the larger muscles.